Maintaining the urban forest
City cutbacks and departure of tree manager raise concern
Scott Gregory is worried. Chico may be known as the “City of Trees,” but the future health of the urban forest is very much in question.
First, last month, the City Council approved a budget that eliminates the four-worker tree crew; going forward, the city will contract with outside services. Then, last week, the city lost its urban-forest manager, Denice Britton.
Britton, whose last day at work was July 3, is leaving the area. Her position is funded in the 2013-14 city budget. Public Works Director Ruben Martinez told the CN&R that he’s planning to replace her, “assuming there aren’t any ideas that are much better for the community at large.”
Gregory, a local field biologist who worked with Britton on a street-tree inventory as his master’s degree thesis, fears what these developments will mean for the tens of thousands of trees within the city.
“It’s looking very likely that the city is at a turning point that could be reflected in the future years with a big change in our urban forest, particularly with our city’s street trees and the trees in Bidwell Park,” Gregory said. “If there’s no tree crew to do preventative maintenance and watering and formative pruning of young trees—all of those are crucial in an urban forest—we’re going to see big effects.”
Britton, too, has “some real concerns” about how trees will fare.
“People seem to think that trees will just take care of themselves, and they do—they continue to grow,” she said. “But if they’re not cared for on a regular basis, they also break branches and decline and have issues. So we can’t just leave them unmanaged.”
The city budget allots $100,000 for tree work. Britton estimates the amount needed at $300,000 minimum.
“I know that times are tough,” she continued, “but I hope that as things improve in the future, they will realize the value of the resource.”
Gregory has determined a value. Accor-ding to his research, Chico’s population of street trees—nearly 35,000—translates into an economic benefit of $3.1 million a year.
That number comes from a USDA Forest Service computer program called i-Tree Streets. It takes into account a range of attributes: energy savings from shade and wind protection; air-quality improvements from trees’ carbon-dioxide sequestration and oxygen production; stormwater buffering; commercial impacts, aesthetics and increased property values.
“All these factors culminate in the sense of place we see in Chico,” Gregory said. “Those who like Chico have their own reasons for liking Chico, but it is a city of trees and people recognize the nice canopy and tree population in the city. It’s the urban forest that has such a profound impact on the quality of life in Chico.”
What effects can Chico expect? Gregory, a certified arborist, sees many.
First, he expects more tree limbs dropping on streets and cars. He says pruning young trees can help prevent “structural failures down the road,” but fears that this bit of prevention may go by the wayside.
“I’m afraid we’ll see more dead street-trees,” he continued, “and they’ll eventually be removed, but I’m hoping that won’t result in stumps remaining in place.”
Gregory also wonders about tree replacement. That, too, requires funding, as well as the expertise to select “the right trees in the right place.” Different species have different soil, water and space requirements.
Have you ever seen a tree with branches that extend into power lines? How about a tree whose roots uplift sidewalk cement? Those are just two examples of how a tree can impact its surroundings, he said, and those considerations are significant.
“Trees have their place as living infrastructure,” Gregory said. “The variables that go into selecting the right species of tree for the right location are numerous.”
Such a big-picture view is one reason Martinez wants the city to fill Britton’s job. He plans to have the new urban-forest manager work with General Services Field Supervisor David Bettencourt, an arborist, who in turn will work with city maintenance worker Greg Nicholas on “day-to-day calls” and overseeing the work of tree-service contractors.
“We’re keeping key staff to make sure that the review of the urban forest is done—that we have good people keeping an eye on it so that we’re making the wisest choices for strategic pruning,” Martinez said. “I’m confident they’ll be ahead of the curve as far as any public-safety issues are concerned; that’s going to be our biggest focus.”
Martinez says the city is moving forward with its Urban Forest Management Plan. The city’s website has a street-trees page (go to www.tinyurl.com/treeecomment to look at it) with a link to the draft of the plan, as well as the way to give comments on it to the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission.
Meanwhile, Britton points out that the city has a free permit for homeowners who wish to contract with a tree service on their own to make sure street trees by their properties remain properly maintained.
But whether or not Chicoans take money out of their own pockets to care for trees, Gregory hopes they’ll keep the urban forest in mind.
“Really consider what it is you enjoy about the city and use your imagination as to what The Esplanade and the Avenues would look like without those trees, what downtown would look like without trees lining the streets,” Gregory said. “Chico would be a very different place.
“I don’t want to seem like doom-and-gloom—it’s not like all the city’s trees are going to suddenly disappear. But we’re not just thinking of the short-term, but the legacy we leave for 20 years from now, 50 years from now.”
City Hall hasn’t forgotten the trees, Martinez said, calling them “a huge benefit to the community, and certainly a big attraction.”
He added: “Obviously we’re going to have to do less with less at this point. But we’re going to make sure that we do exactly what needs to be done to hold us over until we get to better times.”